Applying to Cambridge?

March 14, 2021

I often get asked about where I go to university and when I reply, this usually elicits faces of surprise, excitement, or in some cases shock. It’s a curious topic for many, and I can’t blame them for it! I would’ve equally wanted to know more about applying in my younger days too. Over the years, people have approached me for advice and what I did to “get in”. I’ve collected a few of these replies and put them in this post, in the hopes that it may one day help someone!

It’s worth saying that everything I’ve written here is limited to my experience. By no means should this be generalized too much or taken out of context!

Where to start?

This is a tricky one to address. I personally began getting serious about university maybe a month before 12th grade. I wouldn’t recommend it though as a few things had to go quite well for me to put me in a position where my late start didn’t hinder me. I think of the application process as starting from the minute you start high school all the way to the moment you step into your university’s halls of residence. Evidently, there are different stages, which I’ve detailed below:

  1. Thinking (11th grade + summer before 12th grade)
  2. Doing (summer before 12th grade + first half of 12th)
  3. Reflecting (after offers roll in)

In the first stage, it’s all about thinking. Being curious and being inquisitive. One of the main difficulties students encounter in applying to university is not knowing what they want to do. This is, in my opinion, a big part where schools sometimes fail their students. You don’t want to spend your university years doing something you don’t like, but as a 16 year old, you’ve only had so much exposure to what’s really out there. So what you should do it is investigate and pry away at yourself to find out what your interests are.

  • Be curious… look around and see what’s out there
    • Note what you find and keep that for later
  • Think about what you really like to do and what’s interesting to you
  • Maybe it might be easier to start with what you don’t like. Be careful not to rule out anything too early.
  • Look into this over the summer. Try doing it and see if you really like it!

In the “doing” phase, you should be taking a cold hard look at things and start to put real ideas on the table.

  • If you have some universities in mind already, attend open days, this is where you will be for 3+ years!
  • Ask people you know for advice or experience (like me!)
  • Have fun with this, you’re planning out your future
  • Don’t stress over university => there is no “right” decision
  • An internship to test your interests?
  • The brainstorming phase… (UCAS worksheet)
  • Write those essays and that personal statement to hand it in on day one
  • Be organized when the time comes: recommendation letters, deadlines
    • Same life but more work?

After you’ve started to receive offers, you now need to reconcile your interests with the programs and universities that’ve replied. They won’t always be aligned perfectly, which is why you should do lots of self-reflection to find out which is best for you. Attend any university events, talk to some people there if you can. Engage with the situation. Ask your parents and family for friendly advice but ultimately, it’s your decision.

A note on rejection

I’m not going to be the only one to say this, but you’re going to be rejected. If not in applying to university, it’ll be in your personal life or even later down the line when you apply for jobs. Everyone gets rejected, everyone. In the moment, it might feel like the entire world has conspired against you, but that’s just “how it be”. It’s OK to be down and it’s okay to feel like shit – but only for a bit. Don’t let the rejection be an excuse to mope and most definitely do not externalize blame. It isn’t your fault that you got rejected since it was outside of your control and you did the best you could, but what you do after is in your control.

The interview

What you see below is an email reply, so it’s framed in a more personal context.

I’m glad you’re looking forward to your interview! The interview is meant to be your time to shine as an applicant. The Cambridge interview is not at all similar to any interviews you might have done at other universities or in the past. It’s meant to be something to test your abilities “in the moment”, how you can perform under stress, and your inquisitiveness. These then become strong factors for admittance. Why?

Because being admitted is not about whether you know all the fancy equations or some obscure piece of knowledge – it’s about whether you have the endurance and passion for engineering to manage the challenging course (and writing this in the middle of my second year, yes it really is challenging at times). Essentially, are you in it for the long run? Do you really want this?

With this in mind, the most important thing for you to keep in mind when going into an interview is to show your true self and what you’re capable of. Try to enjoy it – if you really immerse yourself it will turn out to be great fun and a real learning opportunity.

A few other pointers:

  • There will be student helpers to guide you and to talk to you. Do get the chance to have a proper talk with them and possibly even have them show you around college. It’s a great opportunity to get to know your future potential place of study and to get a feel for what your college is like.
  • Do not stress. Obviously, this is much easier said than done but it can be really tempting to freeze or just not say anything when they ask you questions.
    • If you think about this in the context of being able to handle a challenging engineering course, it doesn’t play out too well.
    • Instead, acknowledge that you’re perhaps a tad nervous and embrace that. The interviewers are there to help you and not to ruin you, they want to pry out the “brilliance” in you and put you to the test. The main thing is to NEVER freeze.
    • If you blank or can’t come up with an answer, take a deep breath and rethink things (often saying things like “Ah, so that means…” or “Hmm…I think that..” and others like repeating the question in your own way to confirm you got it give you some time to think without ruining the flow).
  • Controlled verbal diarrhea. This doesn’t mean blurt out everything that comes to mind, but it does mean to carry out as much of your thinking speaking out loud as possible. They can’t read your mind and neither do they want to. This is again testing you to see if you are fit for this. Make sure you run them through your thought process or your approach to the problem. If you are off course, they will guide you until you are on the right track but make sure you TELL them what you are thinking about. Otherwise…how will they know? This is really important. Do not be shy or too silent (some silence is helpful at times, of course). It’s not the time for you to protect your confidence. Instead, put yourself out there and be open minded. Don’t be afraid to say something because you’ll look dumb. If you’re unsure, ask! Use this with common sense. You want to project some level of confidence (not arrogance) but be humble as well.
  • While you wait for the interview, don’t pay too much attention to what others are doing. This is usually my approach to life in general too because it can get more stressful by talking to other people and feeling unprepared, etc. You should never feel bad because of other candidates – they are just as nervous as you are and a comparison like that isn’t fair when you have your own circumstances.
  • More often than not, you’re being interviewed by those who will later become your supervisors. They’re also people at the top of their field, and potentially textbook authors or even behind some breakthrough. Enjoy it. While they’re “analyzing” you, make sure to do the same. This includes asking any questions you may have at the end.

Some pointers from my specific experience:

  • My interview was actually two (much like yours) and consisted entirely of me answering math and physics questions. It was essentially a guided verbal exam. They would show me a question and I answered it. The questions were engineering-related.
  • I was expecting to get asked a few questions along the lines of why I wanted to do engineering or study at Cambridge (for which I had some bullet points prepared and ready to go in my head) but I ended up getting just asked maths and physics. Absolutely nothing on my PS or anything personal about me. You should still be prepared for “softer” questions like these. Searching “common interview questions” on google should give you a start. Make sure you know your PS well and be prepared to talk about anything in there freely. I planned out some of my responses to these broader questions about 4-5 points for 8ish questions. If you do get asked them, don’t be robotic or reveal that you’ve actually memorized them.

The key thing to take away is to be yourself and show them who you really are and what you can really do. Everything else will hopefully come as the interview proceeds. Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the wonderful history and architecture of Cambridge. And, of course, if you’re in town drop me a line!

A few questions

I once got asked a few questions about Cambridge and university. Here they are, reproduced in full.

What are you studying at the moment?

My course is called MEng Engineering. It’s the standard 4-year course integrated masters course that most engineering undergrads take at Cambridge. You get a Master’s in Engineering and in addition the standard Cambridge BA. The other option is to do the 3 years and come out only with the bachelor’s. Better more detailed information is probably on the website.

Regardless of which option you choose, you will do two years of general engineering where you cover a wide range of topics. Then in the third year you have the liberty to choose your modules and specialize. After the first year you can also choose to switch to Chemical Engineering.

What I’m actually studying is here: http://teaching.eng.cam.ac.uk/node/339

If you had the chance, what would you tell yourself if you were submitting your application just now?

Not much. I’m quite happy with how I did the admissions process, it was quite relaxing for me and stress-free. I feel like things turned out well the way they did so I don’t really have any regrets. I finished my personal statement in August in time for revisions during the first week of school. Worked on a few drafts after that. Thankfully, I had diligently studied the years before that so my grades were doing well. I only decided to apply to Cambridge maybe 5 days before the closing date? So I guess I would tell myself to actually apply which I ended up doing. The position I was in academically was very favorable as I had the liberty to choose any university I wanted. I did many things “right” in this process, so as I’ve said I don’t have any regrets.

This doesn’t have anything to do with submitting my application, but if I could I would have studied the relevant subjects (physics, maths) a bit more in my free time. I did the IB which favors breadth over depth so you’re left in a weaker position than the UK nationals who do A-Levels, which is much more subject based and in depth but lacks the whole spirit of the IB. No major crisis, just means that I spent a bit more time studying things that others already knew.

Cambridge vs Oxford. Why is Cambridge better?

Oxford doesn’t even have an engineering course, they have “engineering science”. Oxford may be favorable for other degrees, but for engineering Cambridge does it better. I have no evidence to back that statement up but in my experience engineering has always been linked to cambridge, the more science-y school.

From 1-10, how happy are you about your career prospects in comparison to your friends studying at other universities?

Haven’t given this much thought, as I’m not sure I want to work a regular engineering job after I graduate but I’d say quite happy. I managed to get an internship in my first year with minimal effort but I haven’t heard any of my friends getting any internships this summer. Having many tech/engineering firms based in Cambridge helps.

From 1-10, how good is the relationship you have with your professors?

I wouldn’t say there’s much of a relationship with my professors as the engineering course is one of the largest and in the first two years, your modules are chosen for you. This means that everyone attends the same lectures. The closest you can ever get to a professor is asking them questions after the lecture. Don’t get me wrong though, they’re very nice and happy to answer any email you have but you won’t see them outside of your lectures.

On the other hand, I have a good relationship with my supervisors. This is often cited as one of the greatest strengths of Cambridge over other universities - close contact teaching. You can read up on this on the website, but in essence they’re tailored classes that go over what you “learn” in lectures. In quotes because most people learn the most in supervisions, as they specifically target your weaknesses and you get help from award-winning professors.

From 1-10, how good is the greek life at Cambridge?

Practically nonexistent. I even had to look that up. If you’re looking for their social aspect, then there’s plenty of clubs and societies here. The Colleges provide you housing for the full four years and after the first year you can choose the rooms you’re in and apply with a group of friends. There’s very rarely private renting or occupying a whole house as you often see in the movies. There’s plenty of drinking though, the english are the heaviest drinkers I‘ve come across.

Is the Cambridge student body as elitist as they say?

Not entirely. There are some people that put you off, but it’s no where near representative of the student body. You’ll find that most UK folks are quite friendly and if you want to minimize your chances of being around elitism then apply to a more liberal college.

There’s a huge divide between public and private schools in the UK and the situation will also vary from college to college. Some colleges tend to be targeted by the more wealthy and posh (Trinity, St. Johns) so naturally it’ll be less diverse there. That was initially my fear and what held me back from applying, but I quickly learned that it’s not the complete reality at all. There’s still a few annoying traditions like how they post yearly exam grades on the Senate Hall (center of university administration) board but you can opt out.

What is your favourite thing about studying at Cambridge? And what is your least?

Cycling + the town. I love to cycle and I also love to live in a place where I know everything. That’s why I really enjoy living in Lisbon because it’s small and I feel a connection to the city. Same thing goes for Cambridge, I am familiar with most streets, where to get the best X, where I can go for Y, and so on. The city itself is really pretty and quaint. I also like its proximity to London and it has great transport links. I don’t find myself being limited at all by the size of the city and it’s a nice place to live in. I think the experience is quite valuable as well. It really is a unique experience to both live and study in Cambridge and you will find that very few comparatively will have had the opportunity to do the same things you did. Just in terms of the architecture, you get to live in a city and sometimes in places that have hundreds of years of history! I’m not sure how things will play out this year but if you have the chance and things are OK, I am happy to invite you to a “famous” Cambridge formal dinner.

My least favorite thing is probably a few annoyances about the course and the people. The course is challenging compared to other courses at Cambridge and also compared to other universities which means I don’t have the same time to go and meet my friends and hang out as much as they do. That’s not to say I don’t like the course, I think it’s great and if you put in the effort it truly is interesting but you will sacrifice some (not all!) of your social life. That’s just my experience but yours may be completely different.

What would you change about your experience at Cambridge?

Many minor things about the way I first did things. Major things would probably be better priorities and time management. I took on way too many things and I didn’t always prioritize my course, which meant that at times it was quite frustrating to catch up! This was mostly in the third (online) term when everything went to shit. I still take on way too many things - I’m on the committee of 5 different societies. I don’t learn from my mistakes in this regard, because my goal at university is not to get the best grade but to have the best all-round experience and I find that by doing the things I like, I’ll make way more memories rather than sinking a bunch of time into getting the top grade (diminishing returns).

From 1-10, rate your overall Cambridge experience until now

10! There’s no way I can compare things as I haven’t been an undergrad at another university but my positive experiences have been incredible and in the first year I’ve had lots and lots of fun.